Fragmented Illuminations

Word & Image
February 8, 2021

From the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, numerous medieval and renaissance manuscripts – especially choir books – were cut up to extract their beautiful illuminations. These could be miniatures, decorated or historiated initials, parts of decorated borders or full leaves. A vibrant market existed for this kind of artwork, which could then be framed, or kept in albums for the enjoyment of collectors.

For an institution like the South Kensington Museum, whose purpose was to inspire practitioners in the creative industries, assembling a collection of cuttings had the great advantage of providing a vast repertoire of models and ornaments at a relatively low cost. As a result, the V&A has one of the largest collections of manuscript cuttings in the world, with over 2000 pieces, dating from the 1100s to the 1600s. The vast majority of them was purchased in the second half of the 19th century, often in large batches of mixed leaves.

Cuttings from a single (?) choir book, Italy, 14th century. Museum nos 251.1, 251.2, 251.6 to 251.9

A global jigsaw

I have been researching this collection for a while – in preparation for a display entitled Fragmented Illuminations (due to open this autumn at the V&A, pandemic allowing). It will feature a selection of manuscript cuttings, placing them in a nineteenth-century context, as well as exploring what kinds of books they came from. I have as a result become obsessed with these bits of parchment, large and small, now in the Prints, Drawings and Paintings collection.

Each one forms part of a giant jigsaw, as other bits from the same manuscripts, when surviving, are scattered in collections, private and public, across the globe. The process of reconstructing lost codices has to be a collaborative and international endeavour and, inspired by Peter Kidd’s Medieval Manuscripts Provenance blog, I have decided to share here some of my research notes as I go along. This should also tie in nicely with the essential work done by the Fragmentarium team and could also be relevant to the Cultivate MSS project, and anyone researching medieval and renaissance manuscripts out there.

Too many numbers

Museum numbers are a necessity and a curse … but when someone has in the past decided that it would be a good idea to renumber museum objects, it has invariably led to much confusion. Many of the V&A manuscript cuttings have suffered this fate and are known, by some by an old number, and by others by a new number. For instance the fourteenth-century Crucifixion scene below was once known as ms. 187, but is now Museum no. 8981. Both numbers still appear in the museum catalogue entry to satisfy all searches.

Crucifixion from a Missal, Netherlands, early 14th century. Museum no. 8981.

From the beginning, the Museum loaned (or ‘circulated’) selected art works from its collection to art schools and museums around the country, as part of its educational mission. In 1909, following an important change in the Museum’s structure, each department lent items from its collection to Circulation. When this occurred, these objects kept their original number.  In addition, Circulation acquired material in its own right from 1909 using the CIRC. prefix. Often after this date, when a batch of cuttings was purchased, some went to the Prints and Drawings department and others were acquired by the Circulation department as good examples of manuscript illumination and calligraphy. This, in practice, meant that cuttings from the same manuscript were often split between the two departments. At the time, curators were not concerned with the idea of reconstructing the manuscripts out of their scattered constituent parts, and as some pieces were separated from their companions, the intrinsic relationship between them was lost.

Bifolium from a Missal, attributed to Venturella di Pietro, Perugia, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. Museum no. E.377-1911.

I have recently come across a case in point.  The bifolium shown above, together with a leaf featuring St John the Evangelist (E.378-1911) have been recognised early on as coming from the same Italian 14th-century Missal, as is made clear in the 1923 Catalogue of Miniatures, Leaves and Manuscript Cuttings published by the Museum in 1923 (p. 75). More recently, experts in Italian manuscript illumination have attributed its initials to an artist called Venturella di Pietro, active in Perugia and documented between 1311 and 1323.

The collection however holds two more leaves from this missal which have gone unnoticed until now, certainly because they belonged to the Circulation department.

Bifolium and leaf from a Missal, Perugia, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. Museum no. CIRC.156-1911 and CIRC.157-1911

How can one be certain that these leaves came from the same manuscript? We can rely on a number of clues. The first indication is the visual similarities between these leaves, the script, the identical number of lines of text, but also the vocabulary, palette and style of the initials and border decoration. Yet, these do not give us certainty: further codicological elements can helpfully come to the rescue, as we are fortunate to be in the presence of full leaves. The overall size of the leaves can be an indication, though it does not always provide meaningful information, as it may be that one leaf has been trimmed and not another. On the other hand, the dimensions of the written area tend not to vary greatly within a manuscript and therefore constitute a more reliable clue. In the present case, the individual pages all measure around 245 by 165 mm and the text block consistently covers a surface of 140 by 110 mm. The provenance of these leaves and date of acquisition are also the same: they were purchased together with other cuttings from bookseller Carl Ewald Rappaport in Rome in 1911.

The historiated initial introducing the prayer of absolution of the dead, as part of the funeral rites (CIRC.157-1911), is very close to the one on E.377.1911 and can therefore also be attributed to Venturella di Pietro.

Venturella di Pietro, historiated initials from the Mass for the dead, from a Missal, Perugia, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Museum nos E.377-1911 and CIRC.156-1911

To get a sense of the range and look of manuscript cuttings in the collection, just search for “manuscript cutting” on the Museum’s online catalogue (with quotation marks for best results).
I would like to thank Neil Carleton for helping me navigate the complicated world of V&A historic numbering and for correcting inaccuracies in an earlier version of this blog post.

0 comments so far, view or add yours

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Find inspiration in our incredible range of exclusive gifts, jewellery, books, fashion, prints & posters and much more...

Find out more